In the aftermath of New Year's Eve's mass rapes of European women by Muslim refugees, the questions have been repeated: Should we have known this kind of thing would happen? Could we have known? And from local bars to parliaments, from family dinners to the nightly news, the answers keep coming back: Yes; we could. Yes, we should.
But interestingly, the people who say this with the most conviction are not right-wing Muslim-bashers, or activists opposed to the settling of Syrian refugees in Europe. They are Muslims, and mostly Muslim women.
Over and over, these women, and other Western women who have worked in the Middle East and North Africa, pointed out the commonality of rape in the Middle East, North Africa and Southeast Asia (the MENASAS region), and noted the oppression of women in most cultures there. (The Kurds form a notable exception.)
Many point to the rapes in Tahrir Square in 2011 and 2013 as cautionary tales, describing the so-called "circle of hell" that women faced then: lone women surrounded by men whose hands groped and pulled, ripped and pressed, and eventually overpowered. A 2013 study conducted after the attacks showed that a stunning 99 percent of Egyptian women had experienced some sort of sexual harassment.
True, these asylum-seekers are not Egyptian, but the signs were there all along. And despite new crackdowns on male asylum-seeker from the region, the problem is likely to continue so long as conservative Muslim men remain among their ranks, finding their way into European cities as new citizens. Observed Brenda Stoter, a reporter and sociologist who has spent several years covering women in the region for Al Jazeera and Dutch newspaper De Groene, in a recent essay, "Anyone who thinks that you can bring the Arabic world to Europe without social inequality, cultural differences, and the influence of religion, ignores the facts."
In fact, one of the most shocking revelations about the attacks in Germany was the authorities' admission that they had had an indication such a thing could and likely would happen. In meetings with police, politicians had been apprised that there were entire gangs of North Africans with "serious" criminal records among the refugees, according to a report in De Welt.
Yet they had collectively determined to say nothing of their histories of "excessive drinking, attacking people on the streets, robberies and pickpocketing," in order "to maintain the peace" and avoid stigmatizing the refugees as a group. No one, apparently, considered the probability that, since such molestations generally go unpunished in these men's home countries, they would be inclined to repeat them here. Perhaps they might have spoken first to "Alaa," a 30-year-old Muslim apostate from Saudi Arabia now living in an asylum center in Cologne, who told Dutch newspaper Trouw, "They think that they can get away with it, that no one will put them in jail, that no woman would dare to say anything, because that's how things are in the Middle East."
But now that the proverbial cat's out of the proverbial bag, stories are spilling out, and not just reports about the high rate of rape and sexual assault in MENASA countries. Now we're also learning about the assaults against women asylum-seekers perpetrated by fellow refugees and, occasionally, by the traffickers and smugglers who have helped them escape.
Look deeper, and other, more sinister tales emerge, revelations of sexual abuse and oppression among the Muslim communities already settled in the West. "You might think that Moroccan boys who grow up here [in the West] would view women more liberally and equally. But this is usually not the case," Dutch-Moroccan writer Fadoua Bouali observed back in 2004. "These boys grow up in families where their own mother takes a repressed place. Daily they see that she, the most important, sacrosanct person in their lives, still does not receive the respect and value that she deserves as a human being. Why should they then have any respect for other women?"
Such insights put the lie to the insistence by many Muslim women, and particularly Muslim converts, that wearing the veil and full-body coverings in some way desexualizes them, liberates them from the lustful looks of men, none of whom can be trusted to look at them as anything but sex objects. Yet evidently, non-Muslim men can largely view even scantily-clad women without attacking them, while for many Muslim men, such coverings make absolutely no difference at all.
Still, sadly, the New Year's events also reveal our own sins. For too long, we ignored what was happening to Muslim women even in our own countries, as if they didn't matter. It is now clear we did this at our own peril. Perhaps if we had cared more about them, we would not have had to face this now.
But we do. And so in facing it, we must join with Muslim women in the West and elsewhere to change the thinking of their fellow Muslim men – their brothers, their husbands, and most of all, their sons. Because this is the only way that we can help to change their futures and the futures of women everywhere.
Abigail R. Esman, the author, most recently, of Radical State: How Jihad Is Winning Over Democracy in the West (Praeger, 2010), is a freelance writer based in New York and the Netherlands.